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Oakleigh: A Whole Way of Life
By noted writer and novelist Frank Daugherty


   Mobile's vibrant Oakleigh Garden Historic District is so much more than just gorgeous old homes. The neighborhood shows that when done right, an urban historic district can recreate a true urban lifestyle for its residents. In the case of Oakleigh, that means knowing neighbors and celebrating life.

   Mobile is the northernmost city on the Gulf of Mexico, and its flora and culture express the merging of two worlds: North America meets the Gulf/Caribbean sphere, northern climate meets tropical, Anglo-Saxon meets Mediterranean, and Protestant meets Catholic.

Oakleigh Mansion

   At first encounter, the visitor to the Oakleigh Garden District will be struck by the sheer lush beauty of this subtropical city landscape. Huge old live oaks, often covered by resurrection ferns and draped with Spanish moss, tower and sprawl extravagantly throughout the district. Hundred-year-old sabal palms preside over St. Augustine grass lawns, venerable old azaleas and meticulous flower beds. Gardening was always one of the passions of Mobile. Architecturally, too, 19th-century Creole cottages-the true descendants of earlier French colonial architecture in Mobile-rub shoulders with Greek Revival homes, Victorian mansions, 19th-century Carpenter Gothic houses, Reconstruction-era workmen's cottages, shotgun houses and two-story pre-World War I colonial revival houses with their rambling porches.

Glamour and fun

   Oakleigh's landmarks range from the fun-inspiring to the sublime. At the heart of Oakleigh is stately Washington Square, with its lovely cast-iron-decorated fountain and celebrated iron deer sculpture.The name of the district comes from 1830s Greek Revival Oakleigh mansion, a stunning, sophisticated antebellum home

Washington Square
in classic Mobile T-form operated as a house museum by the Historic Mobile Preservation Society.


Callaghan's Irish Pub
Blocks away, 80-year-old Callaghan's Irish Pub, an old-time neighborhood bar, offers oyster and shrimp loaves and a long list of beers to neighborhood regulars and raucous groups and twenty- and thirty-somethings.

   On the north, couples push baby carriages and health enthusiasts power-walk along famous old Government Street, with its tunnel of huge oaks and breathtaking mansions.

To the south, joggers run through Magnolia Cemetery, the historic rest of Confederate soldiers and a vast repository of 19th-century sculptures, tombs and cast-iron fences. Walking, jogging and cycling are so widespread in Oakleigh that many residentschoose to leave their cars at home and walk to the nearby and newly expanded main branch of the Mobile Public Library, as well as to popular eateries, pubs, concerts and art galleries in downtown Mobile.

   On the east end is magnificent Government Street Methodist Church, offering and an eye-popping extravaganza of elaborate Spanish Baroque architecture and an active, resurgent congregation.

Magnolia Cemetery

To the west, there is St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church, an Italian Renaissance gem, and thriving All Saints Episcopal Church, with its elegant stained glass and cozy, brownstone English Gothic architecture.

   Neighborhood gathering places include upscale Guido's Restaurant, African-American-owned Saucy-Q Bar B Que, Pollman's Bakery, a Mobile landmark, and Krispy Kreme Doughnut Company, one of the oldest Krispy Kremes in the U.S. and a stopping point for the full anthropological spectrum of Mobilians. So frequented is Griffith Shell filling station on Government Street that it was once the subject of a popular comic play by local writer Tom Perez, "Society Shell."

   In the Oakleigh Garden District, neighbors meet neighbors and celebrate together throughout the year.

   In February, groups of Oakleigh neighbors and their children stroll to nearby Mardi Gras parade routes to watch the parades together. On Joe Cain Day, the final Sunday before Mardi Gras, the Merry Widows, a group of women dressed in trailing black widow's weeds and veils converge in front of the Joe Cain house on Augusta Street to keen over their deceased spouse and regale the partying crowd of spectators. The entire area is full of house parties at Mardi Gras and Christmas.

Halloween Costume Parade 2006
   At Halloween, a children's costume parade is held. The streets of Oakleigh are packed like Mardi Gras as children go door to door dressed as ghouls, ghosts, soldiers, sailors and royalty. Following the trick-or-treating, families throughout the neighborhood hold parties and dinners.

   On Mother's Day there is a band concert, and at Easter there is an Easter egg hunt.

For Shakespeare-in-the-park performances in Washington Square, produced by the talented Mobile impresario and director Fred Baldwin, neighbors sit on blankets with picnic lunches and thermos jugs of bracing beverages.

   In September old friends meet new neighbors in the Oakleigh Garden Society's annual Meet Your Neighbor Party, featuring drinks, dinner and a live band.

Meet Your Neighbor Party

Meet Your Neighbor Party

Twice a year, in the fall and spring, residents of different blocks of Georgia Avenue host a block party and throw open their doors for refreshments.

Georgia Avenue Block Party

Georgia Avenue Block Party

   On St. Patrick's Day they jam the streets around Callaghan's Irish Pub to listen to live bands and drink green beer.

Callaghans Irish Pub, St. Patrick's Day 2007

Callaghans Irish Pub, St. Patrick's Day 2007
 

Southward, ho!

   The progress in the Oakleigh Garden District goes back 30 years, yet it is still picking up steam and gathering strength today. There is a strong tradition in Oakleigh of community activism and historic preservation politicking. Political notables residing in Oakleigh include former Mayor Mike Dow, former Chief of Police (and now Sheriff) Sam Cochran, City Councilman William Carroll and Mobile Airport Authority chief Bay Haas.

   In recent years, a group of Oakleigh residents banded together and each contributed personal funds toward the purchase of Ideal Nursing Home and the reconversion and restoration of the facility to a single-family home in its Government Street glory of former days. Neighbors did the same with three large Victorian homes slated for demolition on Spring Hill Avenue. They were moved to Oakleigh and beautifully restored.

   Around four years ago, the Oakleigh Revolving Fund began buying and restoring dilapidated homes in those section of Oakleigh that had not been restored. Furthermore, the Oakleigh Revolving Fund has embarked on an ambitious program, unprecedented in Mobile, of compatible new construction of new houses in authentic historic Mobile styles on vacant lots in the area. Working with architect Douglas Kearley, the Fund has selected homes of unusual architectural distinction in interesting Carpenter Gothic, Creole and Greek Revival styles. Particularly unusual are two brick side porch houses, similar to the well-known houses of Charleston, South Carolina, but based on a once-common house type in Mobile.

   Broad Street, on the currently ragged eastern border of Oakleigh, will soon undergo a dramatic transformation through the federally-funded "Bring Back Broad Initiative." The five lanes of Broad Street will be narrowed and attractive green spaces, sidewalks and bike lanes will line both sides of this major thoroughfare. The project is expected to create closer pedestrian ties between the Oakleigh Garden District and other downtown historic districts, to make walking and cycling easier throughout the area, and to spur new renovations and new construction all along Broad Street.

   In addition to this activity on Oakleigh's eastern border, a fast-paced tide of restorations is pushing Oakleigh's southern border ever southward to include historic areas on Texas Street and beyond. The result will be a revitalized, stable, greatly enlarged district that meets the ideals of the "New Urban Planning" movement: pedestrian-friendly, economically and racially diverse, and a healthy mixture of residential and commercial development. New urban pioneers now moving into Oakleigh's southern areas hope to reap the economic rewards of previous Oakleigh pioneers who got in on the ground floor in the 1970s and '80s and experienced dramatically increased real estate values. But most importantly, they will experience the enjoyment of the best of urban life.
 
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